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 Favourites, The 1990s: 25 Great Recordings

1990sIn the run-up to our twentieth anniversary this October, we've decided to pick up our series looking at the greatest recordings of each decade, with the Presto editorial team setting themselves the challenging but pleasant task of selecting our absolute must-have recordings from the 1990s - highlights include early recordings from artists such as Ian Bostridge, Cecilia Bartoli and Sir Bryn Terfel, pioneering historically-informed projects from William Christie, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Paul McCreesh, and gems from Sir Simon Rattle's time as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

You can also browse the first three instalments of this series, focusing on the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; stay tuned for our selections from the 1950s, 2000s and 2010s in the coming weeks, and we'll be running a special offer on the whole series as part of our anniversary celebrations in October.

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)

One of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire played by probably the finest cellist of the second half of the twentieth century is always likely to make a good combination on record, and Rostropovich’s 1995 account for EMI – recorded when he was nearly 70 - delivers in every aspect. He pours his whole life experience into this set, with exquisite phrasing and beautiful musicianship captured in a stunningly rich recorded sound. (Chris O'Reilly)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Gil Shaham (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn

Gil Shaham is at his sweet-toned, opulent best in these recordings of two great twentieth-century violin concertos. In the Korngold concerto, his tone is beautifully tender in the slow movement, and he is completely in control of the fireworks of the last movement. Luxurious orchestral support is provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by André Previn, with an impeccable oboe solo in the slow movement of the Barber concerto. (James Longstaffe)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Maurizio Pollini (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Maurizio Pollini brings plenty of poise and a formidable technique to this set of Beethoven's five Piano Concertos, with some jaw-droppingly virtuosic playing on offer, not least in Pollini's choice of the longest of the cadenzas (well over four minutes in length) that Beethoven wrote for the first movement of Concerto No. 1. Claudio Abbado conducts the Berlin Philharmonic with a grace and elegance that few can match. (James Longstaffe)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Franklin Cohen (clarinet), The Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Pierre Boulez

The ebbs and flows of Debussy’s seascape have never been captured so vividly and with so much attention paid to orchestral detail than by the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez’s meticulous direction. The accompanying Nocturnes are immersive without being indulgent while Jeux’s numerous technical challenges are mastered faultlessly. (Paul Thomas)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Various orchestrations of the Préludes exist, but in Krystian Zimerman's hands the original piano versions have as broad a palette of colours as one could wish for: the soft-focus majesty of La Cathédrale engloutie ('The Sunken Cathedral') is especially well-caught, but his sprightly playfulness in pieces like 'La danse de Puck' and 'General Lavine' is equally beguiling. (David Smith)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Renée Fleming (Rusalka), Ben Heppner (Prince), Dolora Zajick (Jezibaba), Eva Urbanová (Foreign Princess), Franz Hawalta (Water Goblin); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Kühn Mixed Choir, Charles Mackerras

Fleming is in simply glorious voice on this Gramophone Award-winning Rusalka from 1998, striking an ideal balance between the ethereal and the sensual and delivering a heart-stopping Song to the Moon; Heppner is also at the height of his powers here, conveying the Prince's callousness as well as his macho glamour, and Zajick makes for a formidable, properly spooky Witch. And Mackerras makes the brass sing like few others on record. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), Bengt Forsberg (piano)

Released in 1993 to mark the 150th anniversary of Grieg's birthday, this bewitching recital finds the Swedish mezzo in fresh, sometimes almost indecently sensual voice (the casual eroticism of 'Lauf der Welt' from Op. 48 and the languor of Haugtussa's 'The Tryst' both register loud and clear); Forsberg, too, is superbly characterful throughout, bringing bags of bucolic charm to the Andersen songs and the 'Kidlings' Dance' from Haugtussa. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: Presto CD, MP3, FLAC

Sylvia McNair (soprano), Michael Schade (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass); Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

Haydn’s take on Genesis is as vividly-painted here as could be wished, under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner. Bass Gerald Finley is particularly characterful as he responds to Haydn’s musical bestiary. Duly brash in the Representation of Chaos, the English Baroque Soloists are equally assured in softer moments, with the peaceful sunrise opening Part III a wonderfully still moment. (David Smith)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Ann Murray (Hänsel), Edita Gruberova (Gretel), Christa Ludwig (Witch), Gwyneth Jones (Gertrud), Barbara Bonney (Sandmännchen), Christiane Oelze (Taumännchen); Staatskapelle Dresden, Colin Davis

I can't think of many recordings that are more joyous and heart-warming than Colin Davis's account of Humperdinck's best-loved opera. Ann Murray and Edita Gruberová bring touching charm and innocence to their portrayals of the title roles, with their meltingly gorgeous Act Two duet, Abends will ich schlafen gehn, a particular highlight. Gwyneth Jones utilises the full dramatic weight of her Wagnerian experience in the role of the Mother, while Christa Ludwig is pleasingly gnarly as the cackling Nibblewitch. An absolute delight. (James Longstaffe)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Wiener Philharmoniker, Pierre Boulez

As a teenager newly in love with Mahler (and used to the full-blown Romanticism of Bernstein's interpretations), I remember feeling rather short-changed by Boulez's resolutely dry-eyed approach to the Sixth when this recording first appeared in 1994, but over the years I've come to love it on its own terms for its lean beauty and clarity of texture, hearing new details in the score each time I revisit it. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Vladimir Vaneyev (Boris), Vladimir Galouzine (Grigory/False Dmitry), Olga Borodina (Marina), Nikolai Okhotnikov (Pimen), Fyodor Kuznetsov (Varlaam), Konstantin Pluzhnikov (Shuisky); Mariinsky Theatre, Valéry Gergiev

The Russian bass Vladimir Vaneev was only in his mid-thirties when this recording of the 1872 version of Mussorgsky's opera was made, but sounds (in the best possible way) as if he's lived with the role for decades; smaller roles, too, are beautifully characterised, from Liubov Sokolova's earthy Hostess to Nikolai Okhotnikov's world-weary Pimen, and the full-throttle choral singing (particularly in the Coronation Scene) quite takes the breath away. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Angela Gheorghiu (Magda/Anna), Roberto Alagna (Ruggero/Roberto), William Matteuzzi (Prunier), Inva Mula (Lisette), Alberto Renaldi (Rambaldo); London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano

Gheorghiu and Alagna married just four months before this recording took place at Abbey Road in 1996 and the honeymoon chemistry is palpable throughout, especially in the ardent 'Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso'; the Romanian soprano's limpid account of 'Chi il bel sogno di Doretta' is, appropriately enough, the stuff dreams are made on, and Pappano brings enormous vitality to the bustling crowd scenes, embracing the heart-on-sleeve qualities of the score with relish. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Mark Padmore, Anne-Marie Panzarella, Lorraine Hunt, Laurent Naouri, Eirian James; Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

Superb vocal acting (and French diction) across the board on this Gramophone Award-winning 1996 recording, with Hunt Lieberson bringing Phedre to life in all her complex, conflicted glory and Padmore navigating the haute-contre role of Hippolyte with idiomatic ease. The incisive choral singing is hardly less characterful, and the scenes in the underworld have a tangible whiff of fire and brimstone. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Krystian Zimerman (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez

The precision and poise of Zimerman's pianism is matched by both orchestras (the LSO for the Concerto for the Left Hand, the Clevelanders for the G major) on these dazzling accounts from the mid-90s - but nothing sounds forensic or micro-managed, with Zimerman bringing an improvisatory grace to the slow movement of the G major Concerto and conductor and soloist really letting their hair down in the finale. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Cecilia Bartoli (Cenerentola), William Matteuzzi (Ramiro), Enzo Dara (Don Magnifico), Alessandro Corbelli (Dandini), Fernanda Costa (Clorinda), Gloria Banditelli (Tisbe), Michele Pertusi (Alidoro); Orchestra & Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Riccardo Chailly

The young Bartoli is an utterly enchanting Cinders on this 1993 studio recording, capturing the heroine's loneliness in the early scenes as well as the touching awkwardness of her coup de foudre with William Matteuzzi's elegantly-sung Prince Charming, and dispatching the eleventh-hour fireworks of Non più mesta with dizzying exuberance. Chailly, too, supplies brio and charm in spades throughout, with some especially piquant high woodwind-playing. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Bostridge was only a couple of years into a full-time singing-career when he recorded this mesmerising Schumann recital with Julius Drake (who would become a long-term recital-partner), and the youthful plangency of the voice is exquisitely touching in the opening songs of both Liederkreis and Dichterliebe. But there's bite and darkness too in more dramatic songs like 'Die beiden Grenadiere' and 'Belsatzar', both delivered with the precise, incisive word-painting which would become one of his hallmarks. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Emerson String Quartet

For over forty years the Emerson Quartet have maintained a fearsome reputation for freshness of interpretation, transparency of tone, and insightful musicality. Their Shostakovich cycle, drawn from live performances at the Harris Concert Hall, Aspen between 1994 and 1999, won both Grammy and Gramophone Awards, and with both flawless technique and rich emotional contrasts evident throughout, it’s not hard to understand why. (Chris O'Reilly)

Available Formats: 5 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä

The premiere recording of the original version of Sibelius’s Fifth sheds new light on the genesis of one of his most popular symphonies. Despite the familiar thematic material it’s fascinating to hear how different the four-movement version sounds, and how inspired Sibelius was to revise it into the three-movement version we’re more familiar with today. (Paul Thomas)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Ian Bostridge (Tom Rakewell), Bryn Terfel (Nick Shadow), Deborah York (Anne Trulove), Anne Sofie von Otter (Baba the Turk); Monteverdi Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner

Sounding very much the innocent abroad, Bostridge makes for an unusually sympathetic Tom on this studio recording from 1997, with Terfel a larger-than-life Shadow and von Otter a disconcertingly sexy Baba the Turk; Deborah York's pure-voiced Anne Trulove tugs the heartstrings in her lullaby, and Gardiner plays up the score's neo-Classicism for all its worth, directing the LSO with the same punch and clarity that characterises his period-instrument recordings from around the same time. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Elzbieta Szmytka, Florence Quivar, John Connell & Jon Garrison; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Simon Rattle

Released in 1994, these luminous accounts of the Stabat mater, Litany to the Virgin Mary and Symphony No. 3 did much to raise the profile of Szymanowski outside Poland (and indeed provided my own entry-point into his distinctive musical world). The cumulative effect is quite overwhelming, but Rattle also ensures that every thread of these marvellous webs of sound sparkles, and his soloists (particularly the crystalline soprano Elzbieta Szmytka) are perfectly 'cast'. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Terfel and Martineau both emerge as story-tellers par excellence on this 1995 collection of songs by Butterworth, Finzi, Vaughan Williams and Ireland, each narrative unfolding with an easy, unmannered eloquence and plenty of out-of-doors folksy charm in the more rollicking Songs of Travel and the early stretches of A Shropshire Lad. But there's delicacy too, particularly in Bredon Hill and Finzi's great setting of the elegy from Cymbeline. (Katherine Cooper)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh

Setting out the stall for McCreesh’s trademark 're-enactment' approach – which has underpinned Gabrieli’s reputation in the ensuing decades – this sumptuous feast of Venetian glory is a cut above the rest, both in its selections of music for the liturgy and in its performance. Cavalli’s Lauda Jerusalem is a particular joy, and its florid and grandiose conclusion is spine-tingling. (David Smith)

Available Formats: 2 Presto CDs, MP3, FLAC

Cheryl Studer (soprano), Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo), Jose Carreras (tenor), Ruggero Raimondi (bass); Konzertvereinigung, Wiener Staatsopernchor & Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

With choral singing that is equally impressive at both ends of the dynamic spectrum, Claudio Abbado's account brings the operatic elements of Verdi's great work centre-stage. The quartet of soloists is just about as starry as one could reasonably hope for, including a satisfyingly full-voiced José Carreras in his opening Kyrie, mezzo Marjana Lipovšek and bass Ruggiero Raimondi both terrifying and mysterious as required in passages such as the Liber scriptus, Confutatis, and Lux aeterna, and Cheryl Studer on commanding form in the closing Libera me. (James Longstaffe)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Siegfried Jerusalem (Lohengrin), Cheryl Studer (Elsa), Waltraud Meier (Ortrud), Hartmut Welker (Telramund), Kurt Moll (King Heinrich); Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado conducts an ethereally beautiful reading: the sound of the Wiener Philharmoniker strings at the very opening is just sublime, and this is matched by some of the most beautiful singing I've ever heard from Cheryl Studer in the role of Elsa (Einsam in trüben Tagen especially). Siegfried Jerusalem brings a mysterious warmth to his singing as Lohengrin, particularly in his narration, In fernem Land. Waltraud Meier sings Ortrud like nobody else: she despatches the punishingly high writing during the Act Two curse with terrifying ease. (James Longstaffe)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC